Journalism without a darkroom -Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF)

Paksitan Press Foundtion

Journalism without a darkroom

Farooq Sulehria

As students at the Punjab University’s Department of Mass Communication back in 1993-95, we did everything but learn journalism. To be honest, we were emulating our teachers, who also would teach us everything but journalism.

Dr Mehdi Hassan, the department’s legendary veteran teacher, once made this droll comment: “To fail in journalism, you have to work really hard.” None of us was hardworking. Hence, we all managed to graduate. And the daughter of the department’s chairman topped in the exam and received the gold medal.

Because of their MA degrees in journalism, the girls in our class found good matches as husbands and the boys found good jobs. However, in the batch of more than 40 students, this writer was the sole “black sheep” who dared to try his luck in journalism. No regrets about that.

Any student from the Department of Mass Communication, from any session, would narrate similar stories, with slight variations of detail here and there. Whenever former students of our department come across, they reminisce about the good old times: in nostalgia, university days often contain the best experiences of one’s life — no matter if the university in question is the University of Punjab.

Meantime, since those days, journalism in Pakistan has undergone a gigantic growth with the arrival of privately-owned television channels, as well as a host of new newspapers. But while the media registers this quantitative growth, analysts complain of lack of professionalism and declining journalistic standards.

A number of factors are cited. All factors but this critical one: the sorry state of media studies at Pakistani universities, public and private — the private institutions milking the middle class being little better than the public ones.

Firstly, the methods employed in media studies do not encourage critical thinking and approach. This problem is compounded by the anachronistic syllabi. For instance, the syllabus we were made to follow had lost all relevance in the age of the Internet, apart from involving learning by rote. Vocational skills that we were taught and media theories to which we were introduced dated back to the 1950s, with the narratives studded with the histories of such newspapers of days gone by as Paisa Akhbar and Zamindar.

One wonders if anyone in our batch had any idea of the “” phenomenon: no one had an email account. However, still in vogue was Four Theories of the Press by Ed S Siebert, Theodore Peterson and Wilbur Schramm (1956).To cite Dr Mehdi Hassan again, it did not occur to any Pakistani media “Suqrat” (Socrates) that the “four theories” saw the world strictly through US eyes.

Schramm was the ultimate theorist who, it seemed, had already written all that there was to explain about the media. But his Mass Media and National Development: The Role of Information in the Developing Countries (1964) was an academic cloak for media imperialism, in that it preached imitation of the West. In fact, according to some academics, his “modernisation” theory was used to restrict freedom of expression and justify political indoctrination.

Of course, we were never enlightened on the efforts to dethrone Schramm & Co made by neo-Marxist media experts like Herbert Schiller. Neo-Marxist media theoreticians pointed out that the “modernisation” theories and the “free flow of information” advocated by the American state, academia and media were an attempt to colonise the global media.

As a result of their new approach, empirical evidences led to the theory of media imperialism and showed that the “modernisation” promoted by Schramm in fact fostered dependency on US media and on Hollywood. Together, these two were, on the one hand, exporting capitalist values and interests to countries like Pakistan, and on the other, eroding local cultures.

Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci considered hegemony a “soft power” that perpetuates capitalist rule. With feminism’s coming of age in the 1970s, gender-based approaches to media studies had also become unfashionable long before our lucky batch enrolled at the university in 1993. Ever since media studies originated in the 1950s, almost a dozen new schools of thought have emerged.

We, as journalism students, were carefully denied access to these debates and terminologies, let alone an introduction to the digital age that had arrived by 1993-95. It was enough to learn by rote clichés like “everything that is new and interests you is news.” It took a few years’ practical experience to discover that news is also a social construct, manufactured by newsrooms that have advertisers in mind. Other media faculties at other public universities were no better. (There was no privately-run journalism institute in Pakistan at the time.)

At the turn of the century, when Pakistan was convulsed by the televisual revolution, there was a dearth of trained staff. Often, the solution was dragging a journalist with a background in the print medium through crash courses, while children of the rich who could afford studying abroad were able to get the jobs on offer.

The glamour brought to journalism by the televisual mode is understandably inspiring countless youth to seek a career in the media. Those lucky enough to have been born into wealthy families go abroad and return with brighter chances. A majority have no choice but to enrol at Punjab University where — at least when this writer was a student — even a photography course was banned.

Reason? “The Jamiat thinks,” Dr Mehdi Hassan explained in reference to the student wing of the Jamaat-e-Islami, “that girls and boys cannot be allowed to be together in the darkroom.”

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Source: The News